‘Ottawa’ Ministry touts short-term successes in First quarterly Ottawa jail report
Community members of a task force on reforming the beleaguered Ottawa jail are applauding some of the short-term successes identified in its first quarterly progress report while warning there is still more work ahead.
The 13-member task force outlined a series of 42 recommendations to improve conditions at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, where numerous issues have come to light with overcrowding and tensions between inmates and staff.
On Thursday, the province reported completing 11 of those recommended tasks, making progress primarily on short-term goals — a health care review, improvements in monitoring conditions and a full facility inspection — while saying it is “actively working to address recommendations requiring longer term solutions.”
The province may apply the findings of the report across all of Ontario’s adult correctional institutions.
David Orazietti, minister of community safety and correctional services, said the recommendations include “important changes that will improve conditions at OCDC for both staff and inmates,” and said the government is working toward implementing all 42 recommendations, while “transforming Ontario’s correctional system in order to deliver the programs and supports necessary to successfully integrate offenders back into the community.”
One key task saw the appointment of a provincial co-ordinator of inmate transfers. The reintroduction of the role in May saw “improved oversight and control, resulting in a reduction of the average daily bed utilization at OCDC to 87 per cent,” according to the report.
The facility had been operating at 106 per cent of capacity in February and March, leading to overcrowding issues that surfaced with reports of inmates confined to shower cells, and spending long periods in segregation.
Jail superintendent Mike Wood said there is a noticeable improvement within the detention centre as overcrowding has been reduced while staff levels have increased.
“We don’t have any stats to say it, but everyone noticed when the count went down,” said Wood as he took journalists on a tour through the freshly scrubbed jail.
(A task force member said they were told by the ministry that professional cleaners had been brought in before the media tour, and large sections of the jail had been repainted. A correctional officer also reported that the floors had been scrubbed the night before.)
“It’s a lot quieter. We’re not having as many lockdowns. (Inmates) are outside more. They are getting their programs,” said Wood.
While the average daily head count has since improved, the facility was still operating over capacity — at 102 per cent — on Thursday, the day the report was released.
Irene Mathias, a task force community representative with Mothers Offering Mutual Support, said she was pleased with the progress made by the community safety and correctional services ministry but wants to see more action from the attorney general’s office.
“Some of the bigger issues — the need to divert the numbers of people going (to OCDC) who shouldn’t be there — those are still a major concern,” said Mathias. “Many of the recommendations require action by the Attorney General, and to say that they are working on developing a bail action plan is simply not enough for me.”
Mathias said she would contact Attorney General Yasir Naqvi’s office herself — Naqvi struck the task force while minister of correctional services, and has since been appointed attorney general — hoping for details she felt were missing from Thursday’s briefing.
“They’re dealing with overcrowding by transferring people to other institutions, and there are pros and cons to that, but it is really a band-aid solution,” she said. “The root cause of the overcrowding is a clogged courts system where people are waiting years for their trial, and a bail system that’s putting everybody in remand when a huge number of those people should be out on bail, and there’s many people who should be diverted for treatment. Those root causes have yet to be addressed.”
Naqvi said in a statement the government is “making progress … and we are determined to improve our bail system.”
The province says a provincewide bail action plan will be ready by the end of the year.
Naqvi’s office said it is “moving to incorporate Gladue principles into the bail process” — guidelines which address the over-representation of indigenous people in the justice system by considering “systemic and background circumstances” and considering “all available sanctions other than imprisonment” — and is working to develop a dedicated indigenous bail and remand pilot program.
Meredith Porter, chair of the task force’s community advisory board, and a lawyer who specializes in indigenous issues, said she would welcome additional resources for an increasingly diverse inmate population, including culturally-appropriate programming for the jail’s indigenous and Muslim inmates.
“I would want to see a focus on culturally-specific counselling and approaches to healing, and some trauma-informed addictions counselling — not simply looking at addictions from a Western recovery perspective, but through the lens of survivors of residential schools, child welfare, and things that are very much an issue for aboriginal people,” Porter said.
Aaron Doyle, Carleton University professor and Criminalization and Punishment Education Project spokesman, said there are “some small encouraging signs” of improvement but “the jury is still out on most of the items, like health care, healthier food, and a phone system that does not place a huge burden on families.
“Many people in Ottawa have been very concerned for years about the terrible conditions there have been at OCDC and will be watching closely in the coming months, as that will be the real test.”
The province said it is continuing work on implementing the step-down and mental health units recommended by the task force, with improved access to screening and assessment services, treatment and community outreach, clinical and psychotherapeutic support, and programs and community transition support.
The task force will report on details of the implementation plan and provide an operational time line for the units in the next progress report, due by Jan. 31, 2017.